It matters not whether you’re Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Tom Cruise: eventually, an action movie will have words about your age.
It didn’t take long into the Lethal Weapon series of movies for Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh to get what became his catchphrase. A character always edging towards retirement, he was wont to exclaim in moments of peril that “I’m too old for this shit”.
The nature of the Hollywood action star is such that, sooner or later, their desire to keep blowing stuff up combined with their inability to halt basic human ageing means that a screenwriter will make reference for this. After all, wouldn’t it be better to put one of those young people in peril, rather than risking whatever role of seniority the character in question has risen to?
The earlier this happens for a leading superstar, clearly that’s the most alarming for them. Who wants age gags when they’re barely past 40?
Well, Mel Gibson for a start.
By the time we got to Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998, it wasn’t just Glover’s Murtaugh who was getting too old for this shit. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs was chanting it too. Gibson, by this stage, had reached the grand old age of, er, 42 years old. In Hollywood terms, that’s obviously near pasture age. If you’ve got the temerity to be female and in your 40s, then it’s amazing you’re on the screen in an action movie at all.
Gibson, by distance, is the one who got to have his age suitability for action duties questioned earlier than his contemporaries. Just a few years before, we’d been introduced to Sylvester Stallone’s John Spartan in the glorious 1993 sci-fi actioner Demolition Man (it’s, staggeringly, 30 years old next year). Spartan, we’re informed, is an old fashioned dinosaur, and no longer suitable for the rigours and demands of futuristic police work. Unless there’s Wesley Snipes and a haircut to track down.
How old then was Stallone when we learned that the action movie gods had decided he had matured to senior citizen of the genre? 47. Still in his forties, but unless time travel/cryotechnology takes a turn, that’s no way he’s beating Gibson’s marker. He may just have dodged one of Simon Phoenix’s bullets there.
What of Stallone’s contemporary and rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger? Well, there’s been an element of blunt weapon about many of his action roles, but perhaps the one where he crossed over to the other side was 1996’s old-style actioner Eraser. A film that to this day feels like it was made ten years too late, it’s a decent slice of boffs and kapows, and the general conceit is that Arnie’s John Kruger is the traditional, old fashioned cop who gets things done more with a gun than a nice conversation and tea cake.
“Don’t you get tired of babysitting scumbugs?” he’s asked at one point, chipping back “yeah, but in your case I’ll make an exception”. Chortle. Still, even though it’s only a slight dig, it’d taken to the age of 49 for anyone to direct such an age gag at Arnie on the big screen. He’s our new outlier. Bullets can’t defeat him – or a nail bomb in that film – and nor can his then-approaching 50s.
Harrison Ford certainly isn’t in danger of taking Gibson’s crown. Consider this: in 1989’s joyous Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Ford’s Indy utters the line “that belongs in a museum”. The response he gets? “So do you”. Harsh, harsh. Still, Ford by this stage in his career was up to 47 years old, so he’d been heading into Hollywood leading man age gag territory. Gibson obviously got there first, but Ford is tied with Stallone (quiz question: which film did they both appear in? Don’t look it up), so doubt he’ll be complaining. Also: pretty funny gag in this case.
Which brings us to the latest leading action man to finally join the club, and inevitably the one who’s held back the years the most. It’s Mr Tom Cruise. He’s battled through six Mission: Impossible films so far with no sign of him retiring due to collecting his bus pass. In the recently-released Top Gun Maverick though, finally, someone has the gall to say to young Cruise that “your kind is headed to extinction”. There’s memory of “the old times” too, and whilst Tom might not be acting the expectation of his age, he’s certainly being reminded of it on the big screen for the first time.
How long has this taken? Well, at his next birthday, Cruise will turn 60. Go by the face value of the latest Top Gun movie and he’s flying planes to try and hit Mach 10 whilst also qualifying for a discount on a Saga holiday. Let’s not forget too that he’s got the small matter of two Mission: Impossible movies to come as well. Just because people are telling Cruise he’s heading to extinction, he’s clearly in no rush to get there. All power to him.
Of course, in more recent times, we’ve seen leading actors embracing their years and taking a sidestep into action cinema later in their career. Liam Neeson for one has turned this into a cottage industry. He’s just turned 70 and has seemingly wielded as many guns on screen in recent years as there are candles on his cake. He seems to have run out of Taken films though, but his pension fund can be assured there’s no shortage of clones.
Personally though, I’m still holding out hope that someone like Emma Thompson or Helen Mirren will get the lead in a rollicking good action movie. Or give me a Taken remake with Imelda Staunton in the lead role. I’ll start saving for my ticket now.
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